Tuesday, June 16, 2009


The Globe reports today that crime is emerging as a key issue in Boston's mayoral race.

This is great news, and a great time to propose a crime prevention strategy that might effectively make our city safe. Here are a few ideas that I think will stop violence effectively in Boston:

1. Police are...

The relationship between the police and urban residents is as bad as ever and getting worse.
There is a simple truth that the establishment in Boston has ignored for years: if you alienate urban neighborhoods touched by crime and violence by overpolicing them, and compel residents to testify against their wishes without offering any plans or funding to keep them safe, eventually they will sour on you.

One of the best ways to fix this is to reassign officers that are from or live in the districts where they work to walking beats to meet residents, build relationships with them, and make sure that everyone knows that they are there and that they can be trusted (see "Nice Ride" post below for a great example of this). This shouldn't be something that happens once in a while. This is something that should be happening all day and night year-round.

Connecting with the community is one of the most important aspects of working in it, and officers that refuse to do this critical function should be reassigned to administrative duties or terminated for failing to perform an essential function of the job.

2. Streetworkers with something to offer

All of the streetworkers in the world working out of facilities open 24-7 are a waste of time and money if they have nothing to offer the young men they work with.

Right now, The Boston Foundation's StreetSafe initiative is proposing more streetworkers and extended hours for facilities that serve "proven-risk" youth (1% of the youth population that causes more than half of violent crime). This is a great initiative, but one that is doomed to failure if the rest of the city does not get hip to what really causes crime.

Every young man I have ever talked to in Dorchester and Roxbury has told me that if he could find a well-paying job that would enable him to eat, take care of his family and afford an apartment we would never see him on the block again.

In the 70s, J. Anthony Lukas wrote of Boston that "Well-paying jobs were virtually impossible for a black teenager to find." Sadly, the same is true today. In fact, now even minimum-wage jobs are nearly impossible for young men with criminal records to find.

For our streetworkers to be effective, they must be able to offer the young men they work with realistic alternatives to underground employment, whether it is programs that offer them something of value in exchange for their time or jobs that will enable them to survive.

3. Programs with something to offer

Most programs out there expect participants to volunteer. This results in programs that reach kids that are inclined to volunteer, which usually means they have parents that are helping them and supporting them each day with rides, bus fare, etc.

As a result, the kids that are causing violent crime, the ones that are marginalized and often do not have supportive families, or families at all, do not end up in the programs that are designed to reach them. Simply put, it is not realistic to expect young people that are on their own to buy into something when they can be out on the street using that time to make money instead.

We must begin to implement programs that offer young men something of value in exchange for their participation. For example, I recently started a program that offers young men credit for the court fees and fines that they owe in exchange for their participation. As a result, we have been experiencing extraordinary levels of interest from young men that have been traditionally very difficult to reach. Another great example is Villages Without Walls, an excellent program that got young men from the Greenwood section of Dorchester to show up everyday last summer to organize and work in the community in exchange for pay.

New York City has adopted a program called CEO, where it takes men straight from prison and places them directly into a 6-month transitional job, during which time caseworkers help them find full-time employment that will last into the future. Even using a most rigorous outcome measurement, the program has drastically reduced recidivism and saved taxpayers millions of dollars.

These kinds of programs reach young men much more effectively than traditional programs, and Boston should start to get behind them. So far, the old guard has been very resistant to these new models. Hopefully this will change.

4. It takes more than a summer job to eat year-round

Summer jobs are great, but they are only a temporary fix. When September comes around, if a young man can't find another job he's either going hungry or right back to his hustle. A man has to eat year-round.

The mayor of a city like Boston has incredible resources at his/her fingertips. Sadly, we have not been utilizing the full potential of these relationships.

First off, we should offer corporate tax breaks and other incentives to companies that train and hire a certain percentage of young men with criminal records as part of its workforce. And maybe even to insurers that agree to insure those companies for their employees after the proper training. This is a no-brainer, and a great way to begin welcoming into the mainstream economy young men that have been excluded from it since, well, always.

Walk around downtown Boston any Monday morning and the overwhelming majority of faces you see are white. Same goes for the restaurants and bars, cultural sites, etc. I took a young boy from my neighborhood to the Barking Crab on Saturday and he was so uncomfortable being the obvious only black person there that he told me he wanted to leave. The only way I got him to stay was telling him that, "When we go out in the 'hood, I'm the only white dude around. On the 15 bus, at Poppa B's, everywhere, so if I can do it you can too or it's never going to change."

Change it must, because right now young boys like him and young men do not feel welcome in the mainstream economy and think that there is no point in even trying to enter it.

5. Mobilize the troops

Boston has a veritable army of educated young people in its colleges in universities. That the city has not tapped into this in an organized, effective way is unthinkable.

The city has proposed a database of gang members to share among law enforcement for effective prosecutions. I recommend a database of children, before they join gangs, who are easily identifiable by the adults in their neighborhoods and just about everyone else, that will pair student volunteers with young people for a minimum of one year.

Students that successfully honor a commitment to a young person for 8-10 hours a week for one year or more ought to be given scholarships or credit towards their student loans from their colleges or universities. The way to get the schools in line is to treat them as corporations for property tax purposes if they do not engage in these charitable activities, or, potentially, give them tax breaks in proportion to the amount of scholarships they provide for these committed students.

Kevin White used a pyramid system for his elections, where there was a "Committee of Five" trusted political lieutenants at the top, 22 "ward coordinators" that supervised 253 "precinct captains" that directed 2,000 "block workers" responsible for 25 "citizens." If a politician can utilize such an effective system to solicit votes, then our politicians today ought to be able to do the same to prevent kids from dying.

Boston should use this system to identify children in trouble and pair them with an army of students flush with social and economic capital that would emerge through a system of scholarships and loan forgiveness.

6. Fix the Boston Miracle

I detailed in a post below (Dear Mr. Mayor) how the "Boston Miracle" fell to pieces for what seems to be no good reason. In its place, we have been relying heavily on law enforcement and the results have been disastrous. It is time for a rapprochement between the players involved in the Boston Miracle. Hopefully the next mayor will lead the charge on this and some of the other ideas above.

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